A Millionaire's PlaygoundWhen our beaming host Chris Borslap runs through the list of activities on offer at Leobo Lodge I fear my hearing is going fuzzy.
A crocodile tug-of-war? Is that really what he said? Borslap is grinning like a young boy who’s discovered a great new prank, so I know he’s isn’t making it up.
You usually know what to expect at a game lodge, with sunrise and sundowner game drives and perhaps a guided bushwalk. But Leobo Lodge in the Waterberg doesn’t have enough wildlife to make game drives particularly exciting. It’s also the holiday home for an Englishman who made oodles of money in the technology business, and like most geeks, he’s still a boy at heart. So Leobo is equipped with six quad bikes and an amazing buggy called the Polaris that motors through rivers and up rocky hillsides like a spider.
There’s a shooting range with sniper rifles, fishing, horse riding, and the warmest outdoor heated pool I’ve ever enjoyed in the bush. There’s stargazing too, but not with the usual portable telescope. This is a whopping industrial-sized version in a round observation tower reached by two flights of ladders. Silver lamé spacesuits straight out of Star Wars are hanging in the library below the tower, so you can dress up as R2D2 before you search for your old home in the Milky Way.
When I heard about paintball games fought by combatants dangling out of a helicopter I was convinced the redoubtable owner Rory Sweet is one of those nerds who made his millions by the age of 14. Or perhaps it’s just his four children who keep him childlike.
Crocodile tug-of-war was the craziest of all the options, so I signed up immediately. Mike, the most muscular of our party, was gleefully nominated as the human representative for the man versus-beast-encounter, and the evening was enlivened by ‘last supper’ jokes as Mike chowed down a hearty dinner to carbo-load in anticipation.
The dinner proved well worth lingering over, prepared by chef Coco Reinharz of Sel et Poivre restaurant in Sandton. His food and wine pairing menu started with tomato, basil and mozzarella wrapped in phyllo pastry, followed by tender duck with orange and ginger sauce, then a rich chocolate cake creation.
I don’t remember which wines we matched them with, but they worked superbly and fuelled ever-more outrageous speculation about the upcoming croc encounter.
Since the Sweet family only recently opened Leobo to the public there is no permanent chef, but a standing arrangement for Reinharz or his sous chef to take up residence when guests book in.
The next day we pile into a safari vehicle and drive to the hippo pool. Borslap, the manager at Leobo, unwraps a whole chicken, slices it in half, and trusses one chunk firmly with a rope. Then he swings it round and lobs it towards the water. “It’s not gone in far enough,” he says, as it plops in the shallows barely a metre from the bank. But before he can haul it out again the rope goes taut. The crocodile has been expecting us, lying in wait in the reeds where the chicken sacrifices are always made.
First the water churns a little, then a lot, as the croc writhes left and right to dislodge the food. Mike steps forward to take the rope and begins pulling gently. No use. He pulls harder, digging his heels in. Gradually cold eyes, a snout and shoulders break through the surface, and the croc, who knows the routine by now, waddles onto the bank towards us, the chicken invisible inside its mouth and only the rope protruding. I take hold of the rope and get a quick chaff when the croc jerks its head up suddenly. It’s remarkably strong, and more than a meter long despite being only two years old. They know its age because Sweet bought three from the neighbouring croc farm when it was repossessed in a land redistribution scheme.
The croc seems a willing and smiling participant in the game. After a couple of minutes he snaps through the rope and returns to the water with his prize. Borslap lobs in another chunk of trussed-up chicken and the croc seizes it instantly. This time he puts on a show with the death roll as he tries to wrestle it free.
A firm tug brings him out of the lake again for another photo call. It’s fascinating to be so close to such a powerful beast, knowing we’re safe because he’s more interested in the chicken than the tougher human legs warily staying a little beyond easy snapping distance.
That morning we’d been out on the quad bikes, keeping our eyes out for the smattering of giraffe, zebra, buffalo, buck, hippo and leopards. Most remained elusive, perhaps because the noise we were making had them raising a haughty eyebrow and roaming off in the opposite direction.
We got the Polaris stuck in a rocky river, of course, and I asked Borslap if he and Sweet have had fun pushing it to the limits. “Oh, we’ve gone way beyond that,” he laughed.
Sweet bought Leobo Lodge a couple of years ago and has refurbished it beautifully. Its eight chalets stand on the side of an escarpment with private decks looking over the plains. There are enough amenities to make it welcoming but not too lavish, while the central lodge has the pool, a sauna that was being brought back into commission when I visited, a pool table and squishy couches dotted around the deck.
Sweet also built the far more opulent Observatory for his family, which is lavishly over-the-top but undeniably luxurious. Picture a hippo-skeleton chandelier hanging over a sandstone dining table and a ceiling covered with wildebeest hide and you might start to get the idea.
We’d arrived by helicopter, which seems appropriate when your destination is a giant playground. It took an hour from Grand Central, and our pilot David of Ultimate Heli is clearly in tune with Leobo’s thrill-seeking ethos. When the passengers began to debate whether we were really flying at 240km an hour David dipped close to a hilltop so we could see how fast the grass rushed by beneath us. Then at the lodge he circled a couple of times before climbing rapidly, making me wonder whether it’s technically possible for a chopper to loop the loop. It’s not, apparently, at least not if you want the rotors to stay attached.
You can go to Leobo and be terribly serious, I suppose. Maybe do a little work, discuss business over dinner, and look at the stars without wearing a silly costume. But how dull that sounds. I’m all for the Sweet version of cocktails in the pool, leaping on a quad bike, sinking the Polaris and throwing chicken at the lurking crocodiles.
Leobo Lodge charges R3,500 per person per night. For families the Observatory has two luxury bedrooms, and a triple bunk room for kids and a separate guest room for a nanny, for R35,000 a night. Prices include all meals and drinks and full use of all the facilities. Details from: www.leoboprivatereserve.com.